Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A second question - about human will (5)

4. It’s about WHOLENESS.

In sum, what this question does is ask this man if he really wants a new beginning with Jesus. Is he going to trust this Jesus wholeheartedly that he might help him be better? Is there a longing inside him, a desire that he never felt before that something good, pure, wonderful could happen to him?  Jesus is asking him: 'Do you believe that I can do something good for you'.

As one commentator put it: Here at Bethesda Jesus can resurrect a dead desire and can create a new one. Is this hopeless case, right now faced with Jesus Christ, going to let a miracle happen to him: Do you will this?  If deep inside there is no desire to be better, only a sense of weakness and helplessness, then he will stay just as he is. In this moment of meeting, can he believe in Jesus Christ’s healing enough to say YES?

Woody Allen once said: “Eighty percent of life is just turning up.” You don’t have to do anything – life just happens to us, around us.  But when Jesus Christ meets us and offers us health, he smashes that percentage to smithereens. Instead of 80% predictability, passivity and mediocrity, Christ claims us physically, morally, socially by his spirit for his kingdom.

But when we don’t want a miracle, we cannot face the consequences, we say NO.  Bluntly, the reason why many people do not become Christian believers is because they don’t want to. The reason why many of us Christians are not better is not because Jesus is powerless, but because we don’t want to be better.  Rather, we hold onto our weaknesses, avoid relationships, escape the kingdom's multi-dimensions of being made whole.

This story ends well. There is enough will for Christ to work with this disabled no-hoper.  He is told to get up and walk. And what happens next has nothing to do with that wretched pool. Every hope had been invested in its waters. No, it was Jesus who made him whole.  He then walks into both trouble as the pedants say he shouldn’t have been healed on a Sunday and also into glorious history as a man who did want to get better with Jesus Christ. When Jesus finds him again he says: See you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Wholeness is not just new legs but a whole new way of life. He says 'Yes' to the new beginning. That’s always the story of Jesus.

That prayer remains with me for the many dimensions of wholeness Jesus offers: 'Thank you God for the healing you gave me today. Please heal me tomorrow'  If we were truly spiritually sensitive, we would have prayed that way all of our lives.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

A second question - about human will (4)

It’s about social healing too.
This ill man seems to give an oblique answer to Jesus' question: “Do you will to be well?” “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool…while I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me.”  Does he seem to be saying, “Yes I do, but I don’t have anyone who cares enough for me to help me'.   Perhaps, his life has so closed in that he feels cut off from others who could make a difference.

Jesus' question challenges about wholeness in relationships. If he can get up and walk, the whole of his life will be changed. Instead of being passive, depending on a very few to take notice of him, he will be able to take the initiative with others. He can befriend and help others. 
Jesus' healing always has a social dimension.  And once you say “Yes” to him, you say “Yes” to his friends. You are never on your own again. Jesus invites him to join his Kingdom and you cannot be in his  Kingdom on your own. Are you willing for that?

Some people say no to Jesus because they prefer their own company. They just don’t want to be involved with other people closely.

I made an early mistake in my church in Cambridge. It was an beautiful older building with a timbered roof and three-sided gallery. It prided itself on its sophistication and university contacts even though it was small in number – around 80 people or so. And in morning worship (I had talked with leaders beforehand!) I asked all the regulars to stand up and then turn to greet those who were visiting the church, who would be obvious as they remained sitting down.  My, was there trouble on the first Sunday I tried it! I remember one lady telling me: 'I don’t come for that. I come for dignity, quiet and to be able to think. I don’t come to worship for forced relationships!'

On reflection I think probably some of our visitors found it too forced as well. It was sudden and in danger of being artificial.  But the truth is that worship is never just about me and my space and my preferences. Its language is “our” as well as “my.” Jesus has won for us brothers and sisters who we may not like, but he died for them and he joins us together with them. And they are part of belonging to him and being relationally whole.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A second question - about human will (3)

It’s about moral healing too.

All that can be said about physical weakness applies to moral weakness too. When we are feel weak and incapable, then not very much can be asked of us…can it?  That is made clear for this man later when Jesus finds him and tells him that he is to stop sinning so that nothing worse happens to him. Our lack of wholeness is inextricably bound up with our sin, our rebellion against God.

Throughout my pastoral ministry I have known people who have become so used to their sins that if asked by Jesus: Do you will to be well?, bluntly say no. 

I remember a churchgoer telling me, in a moment of desperation, how addicted he was to pornography and no matter how much he tried to get rid of the cause, it was always ready to overpower him. It had been going on for years. I don’t know how many years -perhaps 38. “So many people are like me, he said.,” I just wish I had more strength but I don’t.”  C.S.  Lewis wrote of the lizard on the shoulder. St. Augustine had a prayer: 'Lord make me chaste but not just yet'.  The idea of being more like Jesus Christ, more holy and pure is so attractive and I would like to be better, but not just yet.

And so helplessly acquiescing into darkness, such morally weak life gives up praying “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” as a lost cause.  And when Jesus asks: Do you will to get well? answers No.

I also remember someone whose violent temper had exploded yet again, damaging family and church. “Oh, I’m afraid our family has always had hot tempers. I know how quickly we can lose our tempers and say the most terrible things about people, and yes, we do hold the most bitter grudges and find it difficult to forgive.  Perhaps for 38 years?

Jesus Christ addresses long term moral sickness and weakness and calls people to break cycles of moral weakness and despair by responding with moral responsibility to him. Do you really want to? Christlikeness seems so good at a distance. But now?  It is too easy to answer: 'In theory, yes. But I’ll let another day go by'.


Friday, May 16, 2014

A second question - about human will (2)

It’s about physical healing.

Clearly, Jesus wants to know whether this ill man wants to be well in body. We can only guess how much hope this invalid has invested (and continues to invest) in the pool's healing waters, and how disconcerted he is by Jesus' question.  Just why does this Jesus think he can ask him about being well?  Does he have some right to talk about physical healing?  By his answer the ill man will show how willing he is to give Jesus a role in his healing?   It remains a critical question.  Just how much are we willing to give Jesus a role in healing.

This morning I passed a church notice board which advertises:  'Welcome to our weekday communion service with prayers for healing'.   I wondered how many people would take this opportunity seriously.  I think, very few.  When you already have a route for healing (even if it has disappointed so far as for this man by the Sheep Gate) how much expectation do we have that Jesus Christ might be at work making ill people well.

Can it be that behind this question: 'Do you will to be well?'  lies the challenge to place trust in the one who asks it?  This is a profound question from Jesus about healing.  And maybe it directly affects you or someone you deeply care about. And you wonder what might happen in the situation of disease and suffering.   Alongside the gifts of God in medical science is Jesus there adding his power?

When my friend Dr. Bob Webber was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer he was sent home, off all treatment.  His oncologist said: You have two to four weeks left to live.  He knew that his cancer was terminal, but some six weeks later he sent an email called “living between two realities.” He shared how since his last email (the previous week) he had been steadily improving and how much he and his wife valued our prayers because he was convinced that God was answering them, and that all the improvement so far is because of God’s healing powers.   I have kept his email:

We have been asking ourselves “how and what do you pray for” when you live in between your doctor’s realism, “I’ve never had a pancreatic patient survive” and the experience of feeling that “God is healing me”.

So how do you pray? I want to ask God to heal me but what if he already has. But I’m also reluctant to be presumptuous and tell everyone I’ve been healed given the statistical downside of pancreatic cancer and the fact that we are forgoing any definite tests for now, like a MRI, CT scan or PET scan.

So here is how we solved our dilemma. We live and pray one day at a time. We pray each day and say, “Thank you God for the healing you gave me today. Please heal me tomorrow”  It has occurred to both of us that if we were truly spiritually sensitive, we would have prayed that way all of our lives but it took the threat of imminent death to bring us to this point. 

To Jesus' question 'Do you want to be well', Bob's answer was 'Yes'. He lived for several months more and accomplished so much.  And I shall always remember that prayer (that I find particularly relevant): “Thank you God for the healing you gave me today. Please heal me tomorrow”


Sunday, May 11, 2014

A second question - about human will (1)

In February I began some posts on questions that Jesus asked. The first in John 1:38 went to the core of discipleship: What do you want?  It's about time (!) I considered another question which Jesus similarly intended very personally and deserves very careful answering !

The scene in John 5: 1-15 is distressing: an open-air hospital ward with no doctors and a great number (verse 3) of disabled people, hoping they might be healed one day.  Around a pool, rows of people are packed, trying to avoid the sun, longing for a miracle.  Some arrived recently, others have lain there for years.  One man has been there 38 years.  We have no idea if he was in continuous pain, but we know he could not walk and he seems a pathetic case.  Extraordinarily (but then he was always doing this) Jesus picks him out from the crowd.
What does Jesus do?  When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time he said to him: Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.  NO!  Jesus gives no short-cuts here. He might have said it, but he doesn't.  Instead he asks a forceful question: Do you want to get well? Literally translated, Jesus asks: Do you will to get well?
Why does he ask that? This is where we need to reflect a little while.  On the surface it seems unnecessary, even cruel, when Jesus has the power to heal to ask what seems too obvious a question.   Of course, this man wants to be well.  Why else would he have been for 38 years in this place with its reputation for healing?  We can imagine all kinds of past disappointments and frustration in his past when others were healed but never him.

Yet Jesus is dealing with him at this particular moment. He knows the heart of men and women (John 2:24) and this question gives a profound reality check. Jesus is asking him whether he really wants to be whole.  Does he have the will to be better? When Jesus deals with people then, and now, he needs full-hearted, whole-life commitment of will-power that says 'Yes' with all we have and are.   At the beginnings we don't know very much about ourselves or about him, but he asks for our wills to be submitted.
This story majors on physical healing but much more is going here as we shall shortly see.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Praise for the flipchart

Today I have been in Essex with a group of new Baptist ministers (called NAM's - Newly Accredited Ministers) from the East of England.  Periodically this group meets for a day and invites someone to open up a subject for reflection and challenge.  My title was: Preaching in the Missional Context.

I was acutely aware that this was my first such engagement back in the UK for many years.  Frankly, I had little idea how much they would have thought about the subject.  I reckoned that some would have studied missional theology and even been involved in ground-breaking projects like Urban Expression - and I was right.  So, some were very clued up!  But others were not.  What should my approach be?

So, yes, I went back to very low-tech - a flip chart.  As soon as I wrote up the session title and asked if any words in the title troubled them ..... we were off.  Interaction sparkled. Words were added, explained, joined up and circled.  It was no surprise that from the beginning the word 'missional' caused problems because of its widespread misuse.  And several said 'preaching' is a major problem too because of the negative view so many have, and its predictability.  In reflection about 'missional' so many words became pivotal such as:  God's mission, Prayer, Holiness, Cultural awareness, Gospel,  Incarnation and so on. Of course, this led us onto more great words: Trinity, Kingdom of God, King Jesus Gospel, Inculturation, Imagination, Discernment, Community Building.  Wow!
One minister said they couldn't believe how quickly the first hour had passed.  What helped me immensely was the amount of input they gave kept me responding within genuine conversation.  I couldn't help but think how dangerous it would have been for me to come with orderly lecture notes, polished in a sequence that met my needs!   Rather, we went through an untidy couple of hours which emerged from dialogue.   I was still in danger of being out of touch, but at least there was some touch!
I find it a great privilege to be involved in days like this because when I am standing in front of a flip chart with a pen in one hand and a blank sheet of paper I really am continuing to learn through others.